Word Magazine March 1991 Page 9 – 10


(Part 3 of a four part series)

Clergy Burnout

by Dr. Peter M. Kalellis

Many clergy become familiar with stress in their ministry. Even before the term “burn­out” was in vogue, some priests ex­perienced symptoms of excessive stress. My first year as a priest resulted in my having an ulcer, and I thought it was a sign of Christian behavior – bearing the marks of the Lord in my body. I solicited advice from the best doctors in the area of Jersey City and faithfully I followed their prescriptions. However, the ulcer would not subside. One of the priests that I met at the Archdiocese sug­gested: “The medication for an ulcer is anesthesia.”

In a study completed for the Pres­byterian clergy, the authors Phillip and McDill said the following:

“Stress may be defined as the summation of all those stimuli (physical, intellectual, interper­sonal, and intrapsychic) which de­mand attention and assimilation at any given moment. Regardless of the source of the stimulus, the hu­man organism enters a state of ten­sion upon receiving any stimulus. The start of tension is relieved when (and only when) the physi­cal stimulus is handled by accep­tance, resolution, or reconcilia­tion. Optimally the human organ­ism remains sufficiently attuned to incoming stimuli to provide zest, sufficiently frustrated by contin­gency to provide challenge, mean­ing and purpose, and sufficiently gratified in achieving needs and goals to provide a reservoir of physical, intellectual, and emo­tional energy.”

Even as I write this, I must deal with stress and the resulting tension that I am experiencing. Intrapsychic stress prods me to provide sufficient information and give you certain skills so that you will not suffer from burnout. In my per­sonal estimation, you are too valuable components in the Church. The phys­iological stress in my body suggests it would be more enjoyable to go swim­ming than to sit in this tiresome position and write about a most serious subject.

Another approach to the definition of stress could be that stress is a re­sponse. Our bodies respond with joy and satisfaction when we exercise, al­though it takes effort. Or they respond with pain when the demands arc exces­sive.

This discussion is not focusing on how we can avoid stress. Stress is a part of life. What we really want to come to grips with is a way to avoid burnout, or, if someone feels burned-out, how we can help him or her to recover.

There are degrees of burnout:

Mild: short-lived bouts of irritability, fatigue, and frustration.

Second-degree: a more serious form; the symptoms last longer — two weeks or more.

Third-degree: still more severe, for the burnout is somatized and manifests itself in ulcers, colitis, chronic back pain, and migraine headaches.

There are four states that lead to burnout:

I. Enthusiasm: high hopes, high energy level, high expectations.

2. Stagnation: the job is not thrilling enough. . . image.

3. Frustration: one questions the job itself and the value of the work.

4. Apathy: one tries to meet only minimum requirements.

Five members of the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Texas Medical School in Houston describe burnout as a diminution in the areas of efficiency initiative, interest in work, and performance level. Other related symptoms include:

I. Feeling of exhaustion

2. Frequent headaches and gastroin­testinal disturbances

3. Weight loss

4. Sleeplessness

5. Depression

6. Shortness of breath

People in advanced stages of burnout may turn to, and make excessive use of tranquilizers, barbiturates, narcotics, and alcohol, which may lead to addiction.

Priests and khoureeyes may be un­happy victims of commitment to their difficult and complex jobs. The fact re­mains that they survive and mental illness, as far as we know, has a low rate of occurrence among them. In contrast to members of other professions, few priests are overwhelmed by the pres­sures of the ministry and even fewer leave the Church. Yet, you and I know there is stress.

I’m leading into a basic question that must be answered by the Church and its leaders:

How can we help the priests and khoureeyes cope more effectively with stress?

If the ministry fails to reward the priestly couple with a spirit of renewal, a sense of inner gratification, then it is missing the mark.

A priest cannot serve anyone’s needs effectively unless his needs are satisfied.

A priest cannot love anyone genuine­ly unless he has learned how to love and respect himself.

Simply, you cannot give someone ten dollars if you don’t have it.

This leads us to ask another question:

Is the priest and his wife overtaxed with too much stress?

The overall agreement among those who work with priests is that stress is principally involved in the area of ex­pectations: what the parishioners ex­pect of their clergy and what the clergy expect of themselves.

In a study by the United Methodist Church, five areas of concern were ex­pressed by the pastors:

1. Loneliness

2. Conflicts regarding expectations placed upon spouses. Should the wife work? Should she attend Church? etc.

3. Feelings of inadequacy

4. Intellectual and spiritual malaise

5. A lost sense of meaning with re­gard to their work

One pastor of a large, prestigious Church reported: “After twenty-three years of ministry, I’m not honestly sure my work has made any difference at all.”

Pastors who sought help at the Men­ninger Foundation focused on five most representative problems:

I. Overextension: the feeling of hav­ing too many commitments that vied for time and energy

2. Imprecise competence: the feel­ing of having no direction; not being sure of why they did what they did.

3. Inadequate resources: not suffi­cient support.

4. A desperate groping for relevant religious faith: a gradual loss of the real­ity of faith; playing the role with decreasing involvement and integrity.

5. Lack of accomplishment: How does one measure the impact of preach­ing? How does one measure the impact of a midnight visit during a crisis in the home of a parishioner?

In our terms of the Orthodox minis­try, it is difficult to measure the intangi­ble rewards and accomplishments that are so basic in the clergy-couple’s life. Regardless of how creative, innovative and productive the priestly couple is, there will be a group of dissatisfied parishioners.

Let’s summarize some of the areas of stress:

I. Ordination:

In many respects, the ordination resembles marriage and reflects some of the struggles. Both are affected and in­fluenced; promises of mutual commit­ment arc made.

In marriage, we all become gradually aware of the unverbalized expectations.

2. Leadership:

Besides having good leadership skills, the newly-ordained priest is usually idealistic. This idealism excites the imagination and makes for a dedi­cated servant.

The parish responds to such a dedi­cated pastor with demands to fulfill un­limited needs, both human and organi­zational. Because of the inherent nature of the Gospel message, the priest feels that every need of the human condition must be met. And because the members of the congregation do not know what a priest’s schedule is like, and what has been accomplished thus far, they usual­ly add more work to the load.

One can rightfully say that ministry is like no other profession. People feel free both to admire their clergy extrava­gantly and criticize them severely

3. The Ten-Year Sprint:

Despite all appearances to the con­trary, most clergy are quite competitive. Clergy do not talk openly about all the facts of life, but they know them very well. There are few desirable churches

— those offering the most desirable sal­aries. Many priests are called to serve, but only a handful is selected for the prominent parishes or appointed to po­sitions of power.

The priest’s family requires more time and support during the first ten years of service. It is during the first ten years of ministry that many clergy wist­fully ask themselves: “Is this why I en­tered the ministry? Is it really worth it?”

4. The Coping Clergy:

There are priests and khoureeyes who, with minimum anxiety are able to enjoy the ministry, and even love it. There are clergy-couples who are free from underlying cynicism, depression, or sarcasm — attributes that can leave a bad image in their trail. Such clergy-couples have a sense of being present in an uncomplicated manner as they meet parishioners and colleagues at any lev­el of life. People are drawn to them in a comfortable way because there is love within them.

Are these clergy-couples more gifted than others? Are they favored by God? Is there something mysterious about them?

No mystery is hiding behind them. God does not speak to them directly as He spoke to Moses. These people have a strong sense of self and personal identity.

Earlier, we discussed the question:

Who defines the priest or khoureeye? Such definition can only emerge from the priest, himself, or the khoureeye herself.

Coping clergy are risk-takers, partic­ularly in their relationships with other persons. They risk being close; they risk being loving; and they risk telling the truth. Of course, they know what it means to be afraid, but they have learn­ed somewhere that there is a promise of new life implicit in every risk, no matter what the odds are against them. They listen to St. Paul’s recounting of his ad­ventures in the ministry and they re­spond: “Why not?” They are ready be­cause they know who they are. Their confidence and their ability for han­dling stress are rooted in their positive regard for themselves.

If we assume that most clergy and their wives are mildly burned-out, we will do well to discuss a possible Recovery Plan. This Recovery Plan can only be effective if those in question decide to answer the following three ques­tions:

1. Will I become a balanced person with interests and activities outside of the Church?

It is easy and rather convenient to discuss Church. But to get into something new and different takes time and responsibility.

2. Will I pay more attention to my physical and mental health as well as to my personal growth?

This question relates to the priest and khoureeye not as reli­gious leaders but as persons. How many of them feel that their lives will be fulfilled if they can just give more to the parish! And what of those priests and khoureeyes who have given and given? They are now tired and frustrated. What is the answer? Should they give more? Or should they take stock of the counterproductive nature of past behavior and start to rest up and take care of themselves, and personally grow?

3. Will I become closer and more in­timate with those I love?

A major task of personal growth and burnout-recovery and preven­tion is for priests and wives to get in touch with themselves, and then begin to improve some of their specific characteristics. The choice to reunite — with both self and other people — is another move in a positive direction away from burnout.

The Recovery Plan:

Like all treatment plans, the prescrip­tion must be followed thoroughly. Some of the medicine may be difficult to swallow. The priest and khoureeye may not be used to it. One key word is attitude. Unless they make some signifi­cant changes in attitude and behavior, within no time at all, they will have drifted back into their old patterns. The choice is up to them.

Another key word is behavior. Remember that burnout is a process that begins with increasing isolation. Whatever the priest and khoureeye de­cide to do, it has to be accompanied by behavior. For example, if they tend to be isolationists and part of the treatment ­plan is to go out and be with people, they just have to go out there regardless of how uncomfortable they may feel among people.

Movement is important — move­ment away from the stressful existence.

A third key word is affirmation. When the priest and khoureeye in­troduce new behaviors and attitudes into their lives, they must take time for some quiet reflection. Our ancestors suggest:

“Before you go to sleep, three times ask yourself the following:

Where have I trespassed?

What have I done?

What ought I to have done and failed to do?”

(to be continued)

Dr. Peter M. Kalellis is director and founder of the human Growth Center in Westfield, NJ.